January 19, 2006

Calling the Muslim Brotherhood

CAIRO -- I called senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian on his cell phone and asked for an interview.

He is the Brotherhood’s smooth media man, the go-to guy journalists like to talk to when they need a fresh quote or want to know what the Brotherhood stands for and thinks. He spent time in Egypt’s dungeons, not because he’s a terrorist (he isn’t) but because, like Egypt’s liberals, he is an enemy of Mubarak’s authoritarian state.

I felt some sympathy for him even though his politics are radically different from mine. Though I can’t say I ever want to see him in power, that doesn’t mean I want to see him in prison.

After the long Middle Eastern greeting formalities, he said he didn’t have time to meet me in person but would be happy to answer some questions over the phone. So we got right down to it.

“Your campaign slogan during the elections was Islam is the Solution. If Islam is the solution, why did millions of Iranians move to the United States after the 1979 revolution? Why do so many people in Afghanistan hate the Taliban?”

He laughed. Not a belly laugh, but a knowing laugh, as though he is asked this kind of question all the time and he has given it a lot of thought.

“Listen, Mr. Michael,” he said. “Iran is not Egypt. Egypt is not Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not Sudan. Sudan is not Algeria. There are different models of Islamic life. We have a very long civilization here, it is ancient. We have common values here between Muslims and Christians and even Jews.”

Was he acknowledging in his own way that the Islamists in Iran and Afghanistan are whacked? Perhaps. On the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web site (www.islamonline.org) they advertise themselves as moderate Islamists. I wouldn’t say they are moderate in the way that, say, the Iraqi Kurds are moderate. Still, there are plenty of more extreme Islamist groups than these guys. The Brothers say they want to ban music videos, not massacre Shias or stone rape victims to death.

While there is an ideological overlap between them and Al Qaeda, the Brothers don’t have guns, they don’t hijack planes, and they don’t blow up hotels. They are moderate, I suppose, depending on who they’re compared with. Next to Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, they’re terrific. Compared with the student revolutionaries in Iran, the Brothers are nuts.

“Okay,” I said. “What kind of model for Islamic life does the Muslim Brotherhood have in mind for Egypt?”

“I cannot answer specifically now,” he said. “We are not in power. We are struggling for democracy. All people must be respected in a democratic system. It is very important to be tolerant.”

Nice sounding boilerplate. But I needed something much more specific. I decided to get back to this later rather than beat him over the head right at the start.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt,” I said, “would you cooperate with the West against Al Qaeda?”

“From the first moment we are against Al Qaeda,” he said. “We condemn all violent activities. We condemned it then. But he have doubts about the way the West fights terrorism. This way of fighting is the wrong way. We need a concrete definition of terrorism before we can cooperate.”

“What’s your definition of terrorism?” I said.

“We need an international meeting and conference to decide on a definition.”

“Good idea,” I said. “So if you attended an international conference, what definition of terrorism would you suggest?”

“I am not going to give you a definition,” he said. “We need dialogue and consensus. It is not only for the Muslim Brotherhood to decide.”

“But what would you say to Western governments if they agreed to a dialogue with you? What is your definition of terrorism? Never mind what anyone else thinks.”

“I cannot give you an answer now,” he said.

Sigh.

Okay, then. I decided to go back to the first question he dodged from another angle.

“Would the Muslim Brotherhood ban alcohol in Egypt? Would you ban books?” I said.

“We are not going to do anything without discussion. We are not in power.”

“Should women be forced to wear a veil or a hijab?” I said.

“You must understand,” he said. “We are outlawed. We can clarify these points after we are free.”

“Why don’t you clarify now?” I said.

“We need fresh air,” he said. “We need fresh air before we can clarify this.”

“People want to know what you stand for,” I said. “My job is to help you explain yourselves to them.”

“The government likes to confuse people about what we really believe,” he said.

“Tell you what,” I said. “You clarify your vision of an Egyptian Islamic state now and I promise to get the word out.”

“We need fresh air before we can clarify anything,” he said.

He went round and round with me like this, refusing to even hint at what their Islamist program might look like. It seems plain enough to me that their deliberate obfuscation is a ploy to feign moderation rather than extremism. Hard-line Islamists for whom the Muslim Brotherhood is too soft and lenient have nowhere else they can go. Moderate Muslims, though, could swell the ranks of the liberal parties if the Brotherhood admits that what they really stand for a micromanaging Daddy State.

“Mr. Michael,” he said. “It is late and I am tired. Just two more questions please.”

We had only been talking for a few minutes.

“Okay,” I said. I had plenty more questions I wanted to ask, but if I was only allowed two I needed to ask something he couldn’t dodge quite as easily. “If you could change three things about American foreign policy, what would they be?”

“Respect human rights and international law,” he said.

We could have argued about that one for hours, except that of course he wouldn’t let me. Instead of dwelling on it I moved straight to the last question, one that tends to be a lightning rod for Islamists.

“What do you think about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?” I said. Since he wouldn’t answer my question about whether or not he wanted to ban books in Egypt, perhaps he would give it away when discussing the world-famous “blasphemer.”

“It was the wrong way to treat,” he said. “Ignoring would have been better.”

What could I say? It was a good answer, the best answer there is. He did know how to put on a moderate face when he wasn’t blatantly dodging my questions.

I can only assume he had a definition of terrorism that Westerners would think is extreme. Otherwise he would have told me what it was.

I can also only assume he would like to ban booze and veil women. Otherwise he would have said that he didn’t. He had nothing to lose from his moderate answers, but he had plenty to lose if he shared extremist opinions with me. So he answered some questions and evaded others.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood’s fault. If they don’t want people to think they’re extremists, they need to prove (or at least pretend) that they aren’t extremists.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 19, 2006 9:00 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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